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WSU wheat research looks at obesity prevention

Matthew Weaver
Washington State University food science assistant professor Giuliana Noratto is finding benefits to wheat in combatting unhealthy aspects of obesity in mice. Noratto's research could benefit the industry as the impact on humans is studied, says Wheat Foods Council executive director Judi Adams.

PULLMAN, Wash. — Biologically active compounds like fiber and antioxidants in wheat could prevent chronic diseases related to obesity, a Washington State University researcher says.

Giuliana Noratto, assistant professor of food science, is evaluating wheat and other agricultural products for their ability to prevent obesity and reduce risk factors for heart disease.

Obesity leads to chronic inflammation, and various fruits and vegetables have phytochemicals that prevent or delay related diseases, Noratto said.

Noratto compared two groups of genetically-modifed, obese mice and a group of lean mice. One obese group received a diet in which the active sources of carbohydrates and proteins were whole wheat. The other obese group received carbohydrates from starch and casein protein.

According to Noratto’s research, even though the obese mice groups had similar body weights, the body mass index — tissues, body weights and body lengths — was 16 percent lower in the whole wheat group than the obese control group.

Abdominal and subcutaneous fat — the fat just beneath the skin — were 18 percent and 34 percent lower in the whole wheat group, respectively.

“You can be overweight, but you can be protected by these compounds working as anti-inflammatory,” she said.

Whole wheat compounds like fiber may modify the fecal bacteria populations in a mouse’s colon, promoting beneficial bacteria and improving the host’s physiology, Noratto said.

“So far we have data to demonstrate that whole wheat in the mice diet helps to prevent markers that will lead to cardiovascular disease development,” she said.

She is generating more data for a report that will be peer-reviewed. She hopes to evaluate which components in whole wheat are contributing most to health effects, including fiber or non-digestible carbohydrates.

Judi Adams, Wheat Foods Council executive director, is interested in the potential message to consumers that could result from Noratto’s work.

Adams’ agency supplies wheat nutrition education.

“I think this will be very valuable when we put together information we’re sending out to dietitians,” Adams said. “It can be made clear, so the consumer can get the general information that wheat has a lot of food compounds that make them healthy.”

In recent years, trend diets have recommended the elimination of wheat consumption due to carbohydrate content. Adams thinks Noratto’s research could be beneficial if humans are determined to have the same results as the mice.

The book “Wheat Belly” uses many animal studies, but hasn’t gone on to show matching human results, Adams said. The scientific community is “very skeptical” about such diets, she added.

“We can give out positive information on the bioactive compounds and talk about how good wheat is for them rather than trying to refute the urban legends out there,” she said.

It’s too soon to experiment with humans, Noratto said.

She next hopes to determine which pro-inflammatory hormones were controlled in fat tissues of the mice fed with whole wheat, and different organs that contribute to chronic inflammation.

Noratto received $30,000 in funding from the Washington Grain Commission for the project. She is submitting a research proposal to the American Heart Association.



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